Artist, architects & construction experts collaborate on unique piece at University of Texas

Kelly’s signature project required extreme collaboration with the design team at Overland Partners, construction teams and contractors.

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June 25, 2019 |

Photo credit: Anna Munoz

Ellsworth Kelly developed a clear vision for the final piece of his career as an internationally-acclaimed artist. In the building he designed, Austin, Kelly wanted to bend light in different ways through an array of 33 colored windows, 14 black and white marble panels and an 18-foot tall totem, one of Kelly’s common sculptural forms. The project, constructed at the Blanton Museum of Art on the campus of the University of Texas, was hailed by The New York Times as “not just a summation of his work’s themes but his masterpiece, the grandest exploration of pure color and form in a seven-decade career spent testing the boundaries of both.”

Kelly’s signature project required extreme collaboration with the design team at Overland Partners, construction teams and contractors. One of the most unique challenges architects faced was concealing the mechanical equipment for heating and cooling. All wiring to electric and technology systems, plumbing fixtures and all of the other building components also needed to be hidden. There was also a laundry list of items to meet University compliance that required installation – and concealment. “While every aesthetic decision was his, we did not simply abdicate to whatever Ellsworth asked for,’’ said Rick Archer, the Principal in Charge for Overland. “Codes, material selection, constructability, structure and HVAC resulted in modifications to Ellsworth’s original design in terms of the scale and proportion.”

The biggest units for the 2,715 square-foot structure – which cost $23 million to complete – were heating and air conditioning units. The units, roughly the size of an automobile and weighing a ton or more, were placed in an 1,800 square foot basement. Workers access the basement through a double-leaf access door manufactured by The BILCO Company.

 

BILCO’s custom-made floor door provides access to the basement at the Blanton Museum of Art on the campus of the University of Texas.

 

The custom-made door measures 5-feet by 10-feet, 11 inches, and required eight weeks to manufacture. The door includes a keyed cylinder lock and a special slip resistant cover finish. It sits on the outside of the structure, next to one of only two emergency exits in the building. “Many people don’t even know where there is access to the basement,’’ Lancaster said. “We had to have access to the basement, but we also had to make the door, as much as we could, invisible.”

The doors are constructed with a channel frame and are used where there is a concern of water or other liquids entering the access opening. They also include engineered lift assistance that allow the doors to open and close safely with one hand in spite of their large size and weight.

Austin delivers precisely the objective Kelly intended when he conceived the project, which he first started working on in 1986. The building opened in February 2018, a little more than two years after his death. “Although the work is not a chapel and has no religious connection, there is something deeply spiritual that visitors experience,’’ Lancaster said. “The interior surfaces serve as a stage of sorts, and the colored windows are the actors.”

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